The Use and Misuse of Social Consensus Epistemology: Election Edition

Debate about whether fraud occurred in the 2020 US Election is a fascinating example of the power of social consensus.

Is the 2020 US presidential election about to be stolen from a certain famous orange businessman via election fraud?

Most of The Media is extremely keen to persuade people that election or vote fraud is very rare or even completely mythical (“the Bigfoot of elections”), whilst various pro-Republican factions are trying to convince us that fraud is rampant and decisive. A widely circulated report by the Brennan Center for Justice claims that the rate of fraud is somewhere between 0.00004% and 0.0009% - though that is for voter fraud rather than election fraud, and measures only proven cases without attempting to estimate the true amount. And the 0.00004% would imply just 20 fraudulent votes per side in the whole US election, which is ridiculous given that people have recently been convicted of stealing up to 46 votes in a single incident. How many votes were stolen by smarter fraudsters who didn’t get caught?

It is far too early to know whether the 2020 US election was won by fraud, and we may never really know - especially if it turns out to be a very close race in a few key states. The closer the election is, the more likely it is that fraud was the determining factor. If the election is decided by 1 vote, it will be almost certain that fraud determined the outcome. If it’s by 1 million, fraud on that scale is extremely unlikely and therefore didn’t matter. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth, and we will likely never know exactly where (I estimate something like 10,000).

The presence or absence of fraud has an anti-inductive quality to it; the fewer people believe it, the more likely it is to be true (and this has to be weighted by how powerful or important those people are - millions of little people might not really count much). If people don’t think that fraud is happening that makes the fraud easier to get away with and therefore more likely to happen, because attempts at exposing the fraud can more easily be stopped, or might never be initiated in the first place.

Election fraud is even more interesting, because if you (the fraudster) can win the election then the victim of fraud has an incentive to back down and let you get away with it in order to preserve the general public’s belief in democracy. Democracy has both a practical function (effective government via peaceful transfer of power) and a “spiritual” function (keeping the peace by persuading people that they are being represented). Overturning an election seriously undermines the spiritual function of democracy as it confirms to people that elections do get rigged and fraud does happen and it does sometimes determine election outcomes.

This scenario of successful fraud followed by acquiescence seems to have happened in the 1960 US presidential election, and again in 2000. The facts in 2000 seem to be that voting machines in Florida were hacked to add many thousands of votes for the Republicans, and those votes were never counted by hand. The 1960 election had issues with fraud in Chicago, with allegations that names were being taken from gravestones and used to vote, or that 56 people had voted from one house. Some people thought it was decisive, and some election officials were convicted. But in both cases, the loser ended up just conceding without a recount. “You gotta swallow this one. They stole it fair and square” - an aide to Richard Nixon in reference to the 1960 election loss.

What this all means is that persuading people that there is no fraud is an integral part of committing fraud: controlling the social epistemological consensus becomes a weapon. That doesn’t necessarily mean that fraud claims are always true/decisive, it just means that claims against fraud should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Every piece of documented evidence starts its life as a suspicion, every rock-solid scientific theory starts as a hypothesis, etc. By creating the perception that a true hypothesis is false, you can prevent contrary evidence from being collected or contrary theories from being discussed. You can dissuade the best minds from even thinking about something by tarnishing it with an aura of low-status and low-intelligence. This phenomenon is pervasive - truth is often decided by who has the most powerful narrative, and compensating for the power and bias of social consensus epistemology is a core unsolved problem in rationality.

Added 28/11/2020: There has been a decent amount of work done analyzing election results and a few things have emerged as potentially suspicious. Having done some of the work myself, the biggest takeaway is just how disorganized the US election system is, and how easy it would be to cheat!